Magazine Feature / People

DU students commemorate 50 years of On the Road

Roxy Theater

Ashley Vaughan’s photograph of the Roxy Theater accompanies an exhibition of Jack Kerouac’s original 120-foot scroll on which he wrote the classic Beat Generation tome, On the Road. PHOTO BY: Ashley Vaughan.

When Jack Kerouac crisscrossed the U.S. with friends like Neal Cassady, Denver was a frequent and much anticipated stop. To mark the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road, the work that defined the beat generation, the Denver Public Library is displaying the 120-foot scroll upon which — in what many consider a feat of literary genius — Kerouac wrote the original draft in a 20-day marathon in 1951.

On the Road brings to life the longing for freedom and the open road from the viewpoint of the “Beat,” a term that describes both an ecstatic way of viewing the world and the downtrodden economic realities for Kerouac and many of his contemporaries. A literary classic and required reading in many high school English courses, On the Road continues to be discovered by new generations of readers.

That’s exactly how DU students Ashley Vaughan and J.J. Friedman first became acquainted with Kerouac’s work. Later they studied the Beats in former DU professor Audrey Sprenger’s sociology courses. Sprenger organized the traveling exhibit and invited Vaughan and Friedman to participate by functioning as photographer and reader.

Vaughan, a junior journalism studies major, first read On the Road as a ninth grader. Although she was drawn to the way Kerouac captured the sense of place, Vaughan says the cover photograph of Kerouac and Cassady was what first piqued her interest. 

Vaughan’s photo of the Roxy Theater on Welton Street is part of the Kerouac exhibit.

“It’s such an honor to have one of my photographs in the same room as Jack Kerouac’s scroll,” Vaughan says. 

Vaughan’s photograph is part of a larger collaboration with Sprenger involving Kerouac-related audio and photographic documentaries. In addition, last summer Vaughan interned as an archivist for David Amram, a Beat generation composer and contemporary of Kerouac.

Friedman, a junior English and digital media studies major, read passages from On the Road and Visions of Cody during the Denver Public Library’s unveiling of the scroll and the subsequent urban hike to Denver spots Kerouac’s wrote about. Friedman read alongside Neal Cassady’s wife, Carolyn (attd. 1946–47), and son, John.

Friedman says it was a “shining moment” to stand with people connected to his literary heroes, including Kerouac, whose work he says reaches across time.

“I feel a connection to it because I think his work speaks to a younger culture. It’s still the idea of experiencing America and having the freedom along with the tendency to feel like you’re rebellious by going out and doing these things,” Friedman says.

While he acknowledges that many things have changed since the heyday of the Beats, Friedman points out that the Beats influenced generations of artists, writers and musicians who, in turn, influence successive generations and “move some of those social norms.”

Last month Vaughan and Friedman accompanied Sprenger, now a professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam, in a 14-day traveling course that traces Kerouac’s travels to San Francisco, Denver, New York and Lowell, Mass. Vaughan received a Fred McDarrah photojournalism grant to create a Web-based photo cast of the course. Friedman read from Kerouac’s work and is creating a digital record of the experience.

The Kerouac scroll is on display through March 31 at the Central Library, 10 W. Fourteenth Ave. The narrow, yellowed scroll contains dense type with penciled-in words and sections marked out. It’s torn and taped. Kerouac used real names, like Neal Cassady for Dean Moriarty, and was more sexually explicit than the published version revealed. The exhibit will be closed on Feb. 23 to roll up the first half of the scroll and unfurl the second portion. For more information, call the Denver Public Library at 720-865-1111.

After leaving Denver, the scroll will continue to traverse the country. Exhibitions are scheduled in Santa Fe, N.M., April 13–May 28 at the Palace of the Governors; in Lowell, Mass., June 7–Sept. 16 at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum; and in New York Sept. 28–Feb. 9, 2008, in the New York Public Library.

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